I was training for the Olympics – then I broke my neck

‘I’m going to die here,’ I thought, as I lay face down in the water, unable to move or feel my body. 

I concentrated on holding my breath long enough to be rescued. 

I’d always wanted to be a professional swimmer. I won a scholarship to a swimming school and moved to Australia to train with the best. 

I was on top of the world, training 30 hours a week with my sights set on qualifying for the 2012 Olympics to compete in the 200m freestyle. 

But in 2010, I returned to the UK on summer holiday. While at the beach, I dived into a wave and hit my head on an underwater sandbank, breaking my neck. 

That’s when my life changed forever. 

Later, I remember coming in and out of consciousness. I knew something had happened but I presumed I’d be OK in a few days. 

People often ask if I was scared, but I don’t think I understood the situation enough to feel this, even when doctors said I’d never walk again.

After a successful 10-hour operation where they fixed my neck in place (with titanium and bone from my hip) the meds wore off and the swelling went down. I started to get movement in my arms again, but everything below my chest never regained feeling. 

It was bizarre going from having complete control over every movement and analytically going through it in swimming to barely being able to feed myself or even going to the toilet without assistance.

I spent a total of eight months in hospital learning how to operate my new body. 

I also heard other patients going back and forth and overheard talk of a swimming pool downstairs… safe to say that got my attention!

I hassled the nurses and doctors, asking them when I could swim. It was where I felt most at home after all. After much pestering they gave me the all clear, believing it would massively benefit my mental health.

When it happened, it was heaven: I remember the day better than I remember winning my national gold medal.

The familiar smell of chlorine put the biggest grin on my face. They placed a neck float on me so I wouldn’t drown and hoisted me in the pool. 

As I inched lower and it got up to my chest, upper back and arms, a warm silky sensation spread over me, like I was getting into fresh bed sheets… wonderful! 

I laid on my back, moved my arms around and knew I was home. Within five minutes I took off the neck float and started swimming backstroke – basically showing off!

I think my natural swimmer instincts kicked in. I hadn’t felt this free in so long. 

This was the catalyst for my rehab, driving me to learn what I could do.

Before, I used to glide effortlessly through the water at high speed, now I was literally dragging – but I had the determination to be better every time I went to the pool. I had a new focus, the Paralympics! Still in swimming but now a shorter distance as my specialty wasn’t on offer for my classification.

But after I’d set my sights on competing, I found out that I would need to have been disabled for at least two years to compete in the next Paralympics – London 2012 – missing out by just one month. This was initially hard to take. All the years of training only to be scuppered by numbers.

But it actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Although my short career as a Paralympic swimmer was successful and I won three golds at nationals, my heart just wasn’t in it. 

I still loved swimming itself but I knew I couldn’t swim as fast as before. Having a near-death experience really put things into perspective and I didn’t want to waste time on anything I wasn’t passionate about.

So four years post-accident, with a heavy heart, I decided to quit.

What followed was the worst, yet most important, year of my life. I’d always been someone with a goal, ambitions and purpose. Now I was aimless. 

Needing something to do, I volunteered at my old local swim club for three years. This culminated in me travelling to Australia to watch one of my swimmers compete in the 2018 Commonwealth Games – and the buzz I got from being part of his journey felt the same as the one I had got from swimming myself.  

However, I felt I needed a new challenge.

After my accident, I had spent hours scrolling the internet for wheelchair exercises, with little success. It was another isolating experience that underlined the challenges disabled people face when it comes to fitness. 

So I decided that I was the right person to change this. 

I combined my years of swimming knowledge, a newfound love of coaching and my love of strength and conditioning into a YouTube channel, Adapt to Perform. It provides workouts, yoga, mobility and mental health advice to anyone with a disability. 

It started off with just a few videos but has grown into much more. I’ve created over 300 completely free workouts for disabled people to help them enjoy their life to the fullest. 

Just after setting up Adapt To Perform, everything clicked into place and I met my girlfriend Alice, who I have now been with for four years.

Obviously dating someone in a wheelchair is not the fairytale most people grow up with, but we have both put time and understanding into the relationship, and are strong, happy and share so much joy together.

Most people still think Alice is my carer, but we both know that we look after each other in equal amounts! 

My life has had many ups and downs, and I’m sure there’s many more on the horizon.

Although I have faced prejudice along the way, most people have been supportive and I honestly believe that my accident led to me having a better life. 

This might be difficult for some people to understand but as my Olympic dreams drifted away, helping others – especially disabled people like me – reach their fitness potential replaced them.

These have made me a better person – I am content. Life is not about what happens to us, it’s about how we adapt.

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